Spotlight Taiwan Series (2): A Reflection on Cultural Brokers and “Understanding Taiwan through Film and Documentaries” at SOAS

Ming-Yeh Rawnsley

The Centre of Taiwan Studies, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London hosted a series of eleven Taiwan film screenings from November 2013 to March 2014 as part of their “Spotlight Taiwan” programme — Understanding Taiwan through Film and Documentaries — funded by the Ministry of Culture. The Programme Director at SOAS, Dr Dafydd Fell, explained that he intended to integrate these film screenings into the Centre’s teaching curriculum. Thus not only were the venues located deliberately within the university instead of local cinemas, but also the selection of documentaries outnumbered feature films. Moreover, Dr Fell acknowledged that he used films primarily as text to help students understand contemporary Taiwan. Therefore he paid particular attention to the social and political issues addressed in a film.

As the eleven film screenings were spread over five months, the “Understanding Taiwan through Film and Documentaries” programme at SOAS should not be understood as a “film festival” per se. However it contained a film festival-like event on 10–14 February 2014, when five film screenings were scheduled across five days. Each screening was accompanied by a question and answer session with a filmmaker or a specialist, followed by an informal reception, and all the events were advertised and open to the public. The films shown and speakers invited during the SOAS Film Week included:

• The Affair of Three Cities: The Game (台北京之比賽, documentary, 2006, dir. Chung Chuan). The director recorded two baseball games in Beijing and Taipei in summer 2004. What is interesting is that the two teams both confronted the Japanese team. Although the results of the game were the same, the reactions of the audiences were very different. In this documentary, the technique of comparison is used to present the problems between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

• The Chai-Wan Matchup (我們, documentary, 2009, dir. Chung Chuan), Q&A with Chung Chuan. In 2008, China hosted the Beijing Olympics and Taiwan held a presidential election. The sensitive issue of national identity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait was reignited. Chung Chuan is a Taiwanese documentary filmmaker who lived in China for eight years. He discovered that the ways the Taiwanese demonstrate their love for their homeland are often interpreted by China as an act of separatism and terrorism. This documentary is a story of TaiWAN and CHIna, the “Chai-Wan matchup”.

• Face to Face (正面迎擊, documentary, 2013, dir. Chung Chuan), Q&A with Chung Chuan. Wrestling is a marginalized sport in Taiwan. Nevertheless there is a group of dedicated enthusiasts on the island who endure physical pain and social misunderstanding and even risk their lives to wrestle. The documentary shows these men’s journey towards becoming wrestlers and reveals the world they live in, both internally and externally.

• Book launch, Documenting Taiwan on Film: Issues and Methods in New Documentaries, and the screening of Viva Tonal: The Dance Age (跳舞時代, documentary, 2003, dir. Jian Wei-si and Guo Zhen-di), presented by Dr Tze-lan Deborah Sang, Michigan State University. Professor Sang has claimed in her co-edited volume (with Sylvia Lin, 2012), Documenting Taiwan on Film, “to date, there is but a handful of articles on documentary films from Taiwan. This volume seeks to remedy the paucity in this area of research and conduct a systematic analysis of the genre.” While each contributor investigates various aspects of documentary by focusing on one or two specific films, Professor Sang’s case study is Viva Tonal. This historical documentary explores popular music in 1930s Taiwan and recounts the island’s modernization during the Japanese colonial period.

• Boys from Fenggui (風櫃來的人, feature film, 1983, dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien), hosted by Dr Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley, SOAS and University of Nottingham. I chose Boys from Fenggui as the closing film for the SOAS Film Week for two reasons: (1) this film is an early classic of Taiwan New Cinema, the most important film movement in Taiwan which coincided with the process of democratization of the 1980s. While Taiwan New Cinema was a culturally rather than politically motivated film movement, it generated specific political consequences. For example, the abolition of the policies which restricted the use of local languages in cinema, as well as the rise of the discourses about the creation of Taiwan’s “national cinema”; and (2) Taiwan New Cinema endeavoured to search for a new cinematic form that allows filmmakers a more accurate reflection of their own experiences and feelings. Directed by one of the leading Taiwanese filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Boys from Fenggui depicts a group of young friends who leave their small fishing village for a big city to look for work and learn to face harsh realities of modern life. In this, as in many of his earlier works, Hou has cultivated a unique auto/biographical narrative structure for self-exploration and self-disclosure where the observer, also the protagonist, sees but does not judge and thus develops empathy and sensitivity. The film provoked much animated discussion among audiences during the post-screening session.

In my previous article, “Spotlight Taiwan series (1)”, I listed five research questions for continuing this investigation: (1) how are values produced and reproduced in cultural events such as “Spotlight Taiwan”? (2) Who are the stakeholders and what roles do they play in generating values? (3) How are values experienced? (4) What effects may such an experience create and to what extent? And (5) are we able to measure the short term, medium term or long term impact of values and cultural experiences facilitated by activities such as “Spotlight Taiwan”?

As a member of the AHRC-funded Chinese Film Festival Studies Research Network, I have gained insight from experienced researchers in the field of film festival studies. In the third and final workshop organised by the Network in London on 24 June 2014, Dr Luke Robinson discussed extensively the concept of cultural brokers, which I find particularly useful in my contextualization of the vibrant and varied “Spotlight Taiwan” initiatives across the UK and Europe as a whole. To paraphrase Robinson, cultural brokers act as a link to mediate the movement of people/goods across borders, while at the same time acting as the “translator” for these goods/people, whether literally or figuratively, often in multiple directions. Therefore cultural brokers facilitate movement across borders both literally, through network of contacts that bridge physical/legal borders, but also through their discursive ability to bridge linguistic/cultural borders.

In this sense, the “Spotlight Taiwan Project” can be explicitly positioned as “transcultural mediators” because their programming — whether it focuses on “Contemporary Taiwanese Art, Culture and Cinema in Scotland” (Edinburgh), “Understanding Taiwan through Film and Documentaries” (SOAS) or “In Search of Taiwan’s Identities” (Leiden) — is defined by a particular cultural or ethnic perspective (this is not to deny that Taiwanese society is in fact multicultural and includes a variety of ethnic groups). Moreover, it is worth noting that both the audiences and organizers of the “Spotlight Taiwan” events are themselves border- crossers. In other words, there are several types of cultural agents/cultural brokers in this process and multiple layers of cultural translations that need to be taken into account. The idea of cultural brokers may be potentially productive in helping find answers to the research questions identified earlier:

(1) How do cultural brokers of “Spotlight Taiwan” (re)produce values? Through my interviews with Dr Chia-ling Yang (Edinburgh) and Dr Dafydd Fell (SOAS), it is clear that different cultural brokers have different backgrounds, visions and motivations and thus they privilege different values accordingly, which in turn determine the ways they frame their programmes and practices.

(2) Who are the stakeholders of “Spotlight Taiwan” and what roles do they play in generating values? Firstly, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and overseas cultural bureaus are the principle stakeholders as they set a policy framework and provide financial support. Nevertheless it is noteworthy that policymakers and government administrators do not seem to assume a directive role in the process. This may be an important marker when it comes to assessing the impact of the entire “Spotlight Taiwan Project”. Secondly, the role of the project directors (i.e. cultural brokers) of individual “Spotlight Taiwan” initiatives is highly important; and it may be fruitful to situate these cultural brokers within their respective institutions instead of seeing them as isolated individuals. Hence within this set of stakeholders, the dynamics between people and institutions are worth our attention. Under what circumstances do the relationships seem to work well or what kind of tensions may arise? Third, while films feature prominently within many “Spotlight Taiwan” programmes, filmmakers often appear minor stakeholders. This contradiction may be indicative of the nature of the “Spotlight Taiwan Project” and its nuanced differences from the more conventional diaspora film festivals. Fourth, local cultural institutions (including local cinemas) may be another stakeholder in some of the “Spotlight Taiwan” programmes; and the fifth stakeholders are invited guests, observers and participants/audiences.

(3) How are values experienced?

(4) What effects might such an experience create and to what extent?

And (5) are we able to measure the short term, medium term or long term impact of values and cultural experiences facilitated by activities such as “Spotlight Taiwan”? Clearly audience research will be crucial to understand these questions. However, while quantitative data will be able to offer an overview, I believe that a qualitative analysis may be equally useful in unpacking the complex dimensions of the social impact and cultural influences that the “Spotlight Taiwan Project” aims to achieve.

Given the difficulties facing Taiwan’s international status, perhaps it is more accurate to describe the “Spotlight Taiwan Project” as Taiwan’s attempt to claim a cultural presence in the international cultural space rather than an aggressive strategy to contest the status quo. From this perspective, in their study of how to evaluate soft power, Christopher Hill and Sarah Beadle (2014: 12) may have suggested appropriate solutions: it is “best done through a qualitative focus on the structural assets or weaknesses of a given country, which governments deploy with greater or lesser intelligence and degrees of priority in relation to harder forms of power”. In this, Hill and Beadle explain that a government has three options: traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy and to work with private associations in a state-private network (ibid). As the “Spotlight Taiwan Project” leans towards the state-private network approach, the elements which constitute such networks may provide us with tantalizing clues to unlock some of the challenging issues of measuring impact and understanding how “soft power” (or perhaps “cultural diplomacy” is a more suitable term in the context of this article) works.

Hill, Christopher and Beadle, Sarah (2014), The Art of Attraction: Soft Power and the UK’s Role in the World, London: the British Academy.

Sang, Tze-lan D. (2012), ‘Reclaiming Taiwan’s colonial modernity’, in Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Tze-lan D. Song (eds), Documenting Taiwan on Film: Issues and Methods in New Documentaries, London: Routledge, pp.60–88.

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